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Chances are when you pick up a shirt in a department store, the first thought you have isn’t: “Did this shirt contribute to deforestation?” You might be conscious of the material and prefer to buy organic cotton textiles … but, we’re guessing you never knew that some of the items hanging in your closet were made from trees. Or that the process used to turn those trees into textiles is responsible for the loss of 70 million trees every year and spews noxious chemicals like sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. You might start to think differently about your favorite top!

Perhaps you are aware of this cellulose-rich product: dissolvable/dissolving paper pulp that is used to make clothing materials. For those out there that are not super familiar with the term, we’ll explain.

To start, regular paper pulp and dissolvable pulp are not one in the same, but you start with generating regular pulp to make dissolvable pulp. As you might have guessed, wood is the raw material. It is chipped up and boiled at a temperature range of 266-356 degrees Fahrenheit. Wow – that’s toasty!

After that baking, the resulting sludge-like substance is pressurized and screened to create regular pulp. With this product, dissolving pulp can be made via the sulfite process that chemically removes the weaker portions of the pulp’s cellulose content. Voilá! We are left with dissolvable paper pulp which has a high and strong cellulose content, making for a super versatile material.

But why would this end up in my clothing and what does it mean for the environment? Let’s explore.

Where’s the Pulp?

Dissolvable pulp can show up in unsuspecting places.  It is the key ingredient in rayon production.  Sound familiar? Check your tags on your clothes. If it says rayon, viscose, modal or tencel – you’re sporting dissolvable pulp! Rayon, in particular, is the core component of viscose staple fiber – a textile that represents 90 percent of the dissolving paper pulp expansion.

Clothing is a huge sector that this pulp rears its head, but what about other products? It is involved in the production of cellophane, photographic film, medical surgery products, and tire cords. You can also find it in molding materials as a filler which end up being used in electrical machinery parts, tableware, toys and more!  Dissolvable pulp appears in so many strange and random places.

How’s it harming our world?

The process to produce dissolving pulp is incredibly wasteful. Approximately 70 percent of the raw wood gets wasted by the conclusion of the procedure. This percentage means that of the 70 million trees that are used to make fabrics each year – 49 million are considered waste!

Whoa! Deforestation at its finest right there.

On top of this inefficiency, another harmful consequence of this process is the emission of sulfur dioxide (SO2).  Not a good byproduct at all! It is the major air pollutant from the sulfite process. While the production of dissolvable pulp may not be the largest source of SO2 emissions, we should not be encouraging a process that spews more of it into our air.

According to the EPA, high concentrations of this compound can cause breathing problems, respiratory illness, alterations in pulmonary defenses, and aggravation of existing cardiovascular disease. The folks over at the EPA also explain that sulfur dioxide is a precursor to sulfates – a cause of acidification of lakes and streams, accelerated corrosion of buildings and monuments, reduced visibility, and adverse health effects. Ugh!

Short of breath yet?

What can be done?

  • Check out the tag on clothes before you buy them.  Think twice about the purchase if it reads rayon or viscose.
  • Sign a petition like this one from the Rainforest Action Network.
  • Share this article with your friends to spread the word!

We can turn this around together as Green Monsters – because do you REALLY need that shirt?

Image source:  Wikimedia Commons